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Handmade Spirits: Chris Sullivan’s Ethereal Animated Worlds

By Kathie Smith

Animated films come in all shapes and sizes, but none of them quite fit what artist Chris Sullivan has delivered to screens. Fifteen years in the making, Consuming Spirits is unlike anything you have ever seen—meticulously made via stop motion from richly drawn cutouts, pencil renderings, collages, and miniatures that are beautifully raw and disarmingly exquisite. Trapped in a Southern Gothic atmosphere by way of the Northern Appalachian rust belt, the film’s near obsessive sense of detail spins a wistful yarn akin to Lynda Barry’s Cruddy by way of Twin Peaks and the Quay Brothers. Most notable, however, is the fact that Sullivan is a creative army of one, balancing his rigorous craft across duties as animator, screenwriter, director, editor, composer, and actor. The tone, both touching and disturbing, builds very methodically into one of the most absorbing films of the year.

Set in the fictional Pawkaghenny County, Consuming Spirits trolls the outliers in the small town dregs somewhere between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Radio host Earl Grey provides a peculiar ambiance with his long-winded drawls on his late-night horticulture show, Gardener’s Corners. Earl also writes a column for the local newspaper, The Daily Suggester, where he works with Gentian Violet, a homely but self-assured bachelorette. An odd duck from nearly every angle, Gentian busies herself to distraction as layout designer and occasional writer or photographer for the paper, as well as school bus driver (or is that just her usual means of transportation?), and history museum volunteer. In her spare time, she is either callously caring for her degenerate mother or playing in an old-timey music duo with her on-again-off-again love interest and coworker, Victor Blue (voiced by Sullivan.) Victor is the newspaper’s photo-finding expert, by way of community service. But his real niche is his time spent at the bar, happily drowning his sorrows, night after night, at the local watering hole.

Halfway through Consuming Spirits, Gentian stands poised in front of a group of kids at the Pawkaghenny Museum of Natural Acts and asks them to guess who is in the Native American diorama behind her. The figure is a mummified man recently exhumed in the local hills. He is cloaked in a deerskin and mysteriously connected to one of Earl Grey’s stories. The children erupt: “Clown? Clown! Witchdoctor! Boogeyman! Zombie! Medicine man!” Gentian, who goes by Genny, sticks to her script: “Close enough. The word I’m looking for is a ‘shaman.’ He is the man in the tribe who communicates with the spirit world.” By this time in the film, the double entendre of the title Consuming Spirits is coming into full focus, and this shaman figure is a key between the lurking familial spirits and the inebriating recreational spirits that haunt the film.

When I asked Sullivan about the initial seeds for his film, he cited the image of the shaman as a visual starting point, specifically referencing a body exhumed from the doomed Franklin Expedition that was lost on its voyage across the Arctic in mid-1800s. The graves of some of the men were dug up in the 1980s to help solve the mystery of the crew who all died due to some combination of scurvy, lead poisoning, and madness. The body of stoker John Torrington, the first to perish on the journey, was extremely well preserved for 138 years by the tundra’s permafrost, his face set with a haunting look of resignation. Sullivan had seen this image and it resonated with him. “It’s so arresting; it’s even sneaking into my new film.” While he has taken great care to retain the appearance of Torrington’s corpse, he has creatively transformed the face into an archeological display similar to one he had seen in Chicago, where he now lives: “There was a shaman from an exhibit in the Field Museum, and the description is very much like what ended up in the film. This idea that a shaman is perhaps a romantic description of an alcoholic was also a starting point.”

But beyond an intellectual or philosophical pull to these unusual human remains, the vestige of those bodies also struck a personal chord for Sullivan. The images of the entombed mummy caused him to reflect on the premature death of his own father and one of his brothers. While the Midwestern setting relies heavily on the environs of Sullivan’s youth, he is quick to point out that Consuming Spirits is not about his family. “The film has autobiographical beginning points, but it is definitely a complete fiction,” he told me. “I come from a giant family, which I was not willing to animate!”

Sullivan grew up in Pittsburgh and was the 10th of 11 children. In his 20s, at the recommendation of his drawing teacher, he moved to Minneapolis to attend the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD). The influence of his hometown on Consuming Spirits is apparent, but the affect of Minnesota also filters through. The filmmaker recalled a news story he had heard some 30 years ago when he was living in Minnesota about a boy who got lost near Ely: “There was a factor that you had to understand: if you get lost in the woods out there, you can only go about 300 yards a day. It’s full of swamps and thickets. This space can absorb you. That is something very Minnesota about Consuming Spirits.” The mood is very much one of marginalization and absorption, which reflects back on the doomed explorers of the Franklin Expedition. This also projects into the film’s characters, who struggle both physically and mentally against their surroundings.

Made up of both stop-motion and hand-drawn animation and shot frame-by-frame on 16mm, Consuming Spirits was a labor-intensive project of handmade aesthetics that Sullivan dove into headfirst. “The idea of having a full color palette was something I really wanted to be able to work with, and that’s what the cutouts provided—that kind of detail and texture,” he recalled. “It was something I had never done before.” The cutouts make up the bulk of the stop-motion action, with movable parts that required minute and time-consuming movements. “The dialogue was logged on little index cards, and so you have to either move the mouth or the little teeth. Some of the characters have replacement mouths and some have hinged mouths. When the actual shooting starts, [we could do] about 300 frames a day—a little more than 10 seconds. If you have multiple characters and multiple camera moves, it will slow down.”

But the process was not without its setbacks. “There was a point when the negative got really dirty, and perhaps the whole film was going to get trashed,” he said. “I was sitting in this colorist room, bursting into tears, realizing that they really did manage to clean it. ‘It’s actually going to be a film! I don’t know if it will be good, but it is actually going to happen.’”

It’s plenty good, receiving critical praise that Sullivan himself wasn’t prepared for: “The thing that feels most exciting is people who do not know you at all, going into the film and being generous. I do not know A.O. Scott.” Scott, chief film critic at the New York Times, chose Consuming Spirits as his pick of the week during its theatrical run in New York City in December 2012.

Yet Sullivan admits the film is not for everybody, and it requires a certain commitment from the viewer in order to excavate the connective strands of the narrative. That sense of discovery, from the very first minute of Consuming Spirits to its very last, is what sets it apart from nearly every other film you’re likely to find in theaters. But, like many great films, it requires a leap of faith that the filmmaker is going to take you somewhere you’ve never been. “The first 30 to 40 minutes, you’re still like, ‘Where am I?’ And then you suddenly go, ‘I think I see where I am’ and it starts to solidify,” says Sullivan. “I like that as a viewer, but it’s scary as a filmmaker.”

Consuming Spirits is also the result of Sullivan’s wide-ranging tastes in art and wry sense of humor. More than a decade of work translated into a substantial number of years of influences, and you notice many of them flash before your eyes in very subtle ways. (A. O. Scott was astute enough to notice the advertisement in one of the newspaper clippings for “Falconetti’s Barbeque,” a reference to Carl Theodore Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc and its lead actress.) You see traces of the dense work of comic book artist Chris Ware, the rough-around-the-edges drawings of R. Crumb, and the tactile animation of Wendy Tilby, and you hear echoes of the melancholic music associated with alt country in the score. Sullivan does not disagree with these connections, but he is eager to offer up some of his influences and allies—author Alison Bechdel, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, the radio shows of Joe Frank, director James Whale, and filmmaker John Cassavetes, who Sullivan cites as “an enormous influence”: “In [Cassavetes’s] films, there’s always a terrible party you’re at for too long. He wants you to feel that discomfort, that pain.” The bittersweet release from that pain was something Cassavetes was concerned about then, and something Sullivan is concerned about in Consuming Spirits.

It’s also worth noting that Sullivan is also a performer, like Cassavetes, attentive to that component of live immediacy that is hard to capture in film. “There is something that happens onstage—the acceptance of shifts, the acceptance of different kinds of suspension of disbelief—that still does not function in film,” he said. Sullivan performed an experimental work at the Walker as part of Out There 7 in 1995 and brought the piece Mark the Encounter to the Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis a few years ago, but has largely had to put this performance work aside to finish his film. “I had said, ‘I’m going to take a break; I don’t have time for this; I’m raising kids; I’ve got my job; I’ve got my film.’ But I kept on missing it.” Sullivan hopes to bring a piece he’s been working on up to Minneapolis in the fall depending on the flow of his other projects.

Until then, Consuming Spirits will continue its flight, with bookings in Seattle, Edinburgh, Istanbul, Luxemburg, Chicago, and potentially Los Angeles. Sullivan’s visit to Minneapolis features two screenings in the Walker Cinema will also include events at MCAD and a panel discussion hosted at the Walker with IFP.

Sullivan is enthusiastic about getting people to the cinema to see his film. “For me, it really only exists in the social space of the cinema,” he said. “There is something about sitting in a room full of people and experiencing it. I really want to defend the right to assembly—the cultural value of assembly! All the people at Apple will have to realize that not everything should happen by the glow of a flat screen.”

Can you bring the kids? “Some reviews say don’t bring the kids, but I would say bring the smart kids over 12,” he laughed. “It’s a weird film, but it’s not an esoteric film. So I’m game: all takers!” All takers, young or old, will be rewarded with an exploration of rural American idiosyncrasy that is part folklore and part mystery, strung together with free-association-like ingenuity. It’s also one of the most unique films of the year.

Chris Sullivan creating Consuming Spirits

Photo: Taylor Glascock

Chris Sullivan

Photo: Taylor Glascock

The shaman on display at the Pawkaghenny Museum of Natural Acts in Chris Sullivan’s Consuming Spirits

Victor Blue holding a photo of John Torrington’s corpse

Chris Sullivan, Consuming Spirits, 2012

Courtesy Chris Sullivan

Chris Sullivan, Consuming Spirits, 2012

Courtesy Chris Sullivan

Chris Sullivan, Consuming Spirits

Chris Sullivan in Bang on My Chest If You Think I’m Perfect, part of Out There 7 (1995)